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Artillery Row

An election without ideas

We need intellectual substance, not just idle gossip

Another Tory MP has defected to Labour. Keir Starmer told Diane Abbott she couldn’t stand in the election, which made Diane really cross, but then Angela Rayner said Diane should be able to stand in the election, which made Keir really cross. Sunak apologised for going to a party, or turning up to a meeting early, which he pivoted into a spiel about his furlough scheme. Sunak will give even more money to pensioners while Starmer will grow the economy without telling us how. Long articles are written about Sunak’s wife’s family’s business, the fact that he uses a Peloton, and his expensive shoes. Everyone was all aflutter a few weeks ago when Starmer told a reporter his father only played classical music at home. 

So much talk of who said what. So much emphasis on personality. So much vote hustling without any real sense of what you would be voting for, rather than who. So much politics, so little policy. Reading the election coverage one begins to wonder: what happened to ideas in British politics? Where are the great moral, intellectual, and cultural visions that animate and make coherent the mass of messages, statements and policies? Without these unifying ideas, culled from the works of greater minds, modern politics will inevitably be stuck in a focus group mindset, lacking the imagination to think about the country as a whole.

Labour does have some core policies: breakfast clubs in schools, raising the minimum wage, a rape unit in every police force, ending hostel use for asylum seekers, stopping bonuses for water company executives who pollute, VAT on private schools.  There are some big policies — two million extra NHS appointments a year, setting up a new state-owned energy company, reforming the way GPs work. Many of these are honourable, some are going to be more effective than others, all are responding to opinion polling.

None of these policies is going to make much difference to the overall state of Britain. Like the Tories, Labour prefers “economic stability” to economic growth. This means lots of emphasis on fiscal rules and not being Liz Truss, but very little, if any, discussion of how to prevent another lost decade. Britain is stagnant. So many of our problems stem from this simple fact. Until we improve productivity and GPD per capita starts to grow again, the things voters won’t will get harder to deliver, not easier. 

People talk about growth as if it is something we all want but that it is fanciful to target. As if growth just happens. Whereas the role of politics is supposed to be to roll out a shopping list of policies that respond to voters’ concerns. But good politics is based on ideas and promotes a vision of the country. If we had leaders who were capable of talking to the voters on those terms, as Thatcher, Blair, and to some extent Cameron all were, we’d be having a very different general election.

If we want to get more people to see the GP, we should consider copying the Sinaporean polyclinic model. If Starmer is serious about “Getting Britain building” he needs to understand why Ukraine has built more wind turbines than Britain since the Russian invasion began. As Sam Dumitriu wrote recently, “There is simply no way to get to a zero carbon grid by 2035, let alone 2030, without deep reform of the planning system.” Labour is happy to talk about the importance of Net Zero. We are told that Sir Patrick Valence backs their plans. But panicking and sermonising will only produce hot air, and not in a way we can convert to clean electricity. 

To turn clumps of policies into effective politics, we need big ideas

And this is the heart of the problem. To turn clumps of policies into effective politics, we need big ideas. We need to understand, as Margaret Thatcher once said, that “economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” Voters are complacent, and so (based on their public talking points) are the politicians. This country needs shaking out of its delusions. We do not realise how much our economy has stagnated. Scott Alexander pointed out this week that “the median black American household earns more ($48,297) than the median UK household (£35,000 = $44,450).”

A politics that is content to shuffle the piece around to make promises about a new system for running the trains and yet once more increasing NHS spending without facing the challenge of telling the voters that if we carry on like this without significant reforms none of these things will be available to us in the near future, is insufficient. We live in a time of tremendous changes in Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, and scientific advances. And here we are in Britain, nattering about Diane Abbott and clamouring for cheaper energy bills without having a national discussion about how to increase energy supply.

Too often, we are more interested in the entertainment of politics than we are in the ideas. I met a leader writer from a national paper in the pub recently, who had strong opinions about Liz Truss. But it was entirely about her soundbites and her interviews. This person was totally unacquainted with the council of economists that Truss convened to produce alternative budget proposals, serious and significant works. 

In this age of The News Agents and The Rest is Politics, ideas come second to clever-sounding gossip. We don’t need more intellectuals in politics, we need people who are animated by ideas and prepared to make decisions, rather than the rabblement of poll chasers and sound-bite speakers we currently have.

Starmer is said to be posing in this election as he was in the campaign. Behind the scenes, it seems to be the case that Labour are taking seriously some of the ideas being proposed to improve Britain. Let us hope this is true. The time to take ourselves more seriously is now. We need to care less about whether an American comedian has anything to say about the selection process for Labour party MPs and more about the fact that the future is moving away from us faster than we realise.

Watching Sunak wash a rowing boat and chat amiably to members of a rowing club while the Lib Dems pulled a prank by waving their placards from a passing boat made me think of Mel Brook’s film The Producers. It’s as if they’re all in on a conspiracy to try and produce the biggest flop in history.

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